The census, although nominally apolitical, is a highly political exercise in Northern Ireland – and next year will take the level of politicisation to higher levels.
The 2001 census added to the usual question on religion one on 'religion or religion brought up in', in an attempt to label those who claimed no current religion. This nuance seemed to add considerably to the picture of Northern Ireland's population (though NISRA used some slightly questionable methodologies to 'allocate' those who resisted allocation). The question on 'religion or religion brought up in' will be retained in 2011, allowing demographers to draw some very broad conclusions – and of particular interest will be the 'evolution' of the very young, who had a high rate of non-declaration on the religious question, despite a lower rate amongst their parents (who actually filled in the forms on their behalf!). It will be interesting to see if the 7.4 % of 0-4 year-olds in 2001 with no 'religion or religion brought up in' have grown up to be an equally irreligious group of 10-14 year-olds.
The Proposals for the 2011 Census of Population in Northern Ireland, published in March by NISRA, add several novelties that were not included in 2001, including questions on:
- National identity
- Main language
- Ability in English
- Ability in Irish and Ulster Scots
The question on 'national identity' is separate to that on citizenship, and is thus a wholly political question, designed to show what proportion of the population considers themselves 'Irish' or 'British'. It is not clear yet what permutations of answers will be allowed, or if it will be a free-text field. The possibilities include, of course, Irish, British, Northern Irish, 'Ulster', or any combination of these (not counting those people who identify with countries further afield). The results of this question will, of course, be argued over for years – with unionists claiming that 'only X % of the population identify themselves as Irish, and therefore Irish unity is a non-starter', etc. Others may point out the the 'Irish' identity outnumbers the 'British' identity west of the Bann and that re-partition should be considered. Still others will look at the evolution of identities across age groups – if more of the young see themselves as 'Irish' than 'British' then the future if Northern Ireland comes into question.
The questions on ability in Irish and/or Ulster Scots will, no doubt, be used to provide unionists with a weapon to use against an Irish Language Act, and probably also to argue against funding for Irish in general. The 'main language' of 99.8 % of the indigenous population will turn out to be English, and this will, of course, be used against any 'concessions' to the Irish language.
Censuses do not give up their results overnight like elections, of course, and thus while 2011 may provide political shocks at Assembly and Council levels, the census will dribble out its results over a longer period, and influence political discourse for a number of years. It will provide enormous amounts of data for politicians and demographers to pore over, and to argue over. But at the end of the day the most important factor in political decision-making remains election results. No matter what the census tells us about national identity, if a majority of voters vote for nationalist parties, this trumps the census. For that reason, while the political census next year is interesting, the elections will be vital.